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Some Christians want to make amends for the church's treatment of Indigenous people


Some Christians want to make amends for the church's treatment of native and Indigenous people. A growing number of denominations have voted to repudiate a doctrine that led to violent colonization. NPR religion correspondent Jason DeRose reports on how that's playing out at local congregations.

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: Each Sunday in Southern California, Culver City Presbyterian Church begins with these words.

FRANCES WATTMAN ROSENAU: As we gather for worship this day, we acknowledge that the land on which we gather was, for many generations, stewarded by the Tongva, Kizh and Chumash people. We recognize the enduring presence of Indigenous peoples connected to and on this land. Friends, let us worship God.


DEROSE: Pastor Frances Wattman Rosenau first began using a land acknowledgement to open services in 2017. She took great care with the language, especially one word in particular.

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WATTMAN ROSENAU: Stewardship is a very theological word for us because it implies care and providing, tending a deep relationship.

DEROSE: It's a relationship, Wattman Rosenau says, Christians should emulate. She hopes placing these words at the beginning of the service is leading her flock to both learn more about their native neighbors and reflect on Christian violence toward Indigenous people.

WATTMAN ROSENAU: As Christians, we have a deep, long tradition of repentance, of truth-telling, speaking truth to power. Repentance is not just so that we can wallow in the guilt but so that there can be a mending so that the things that have been broken can be healed.

DEROSE: Healed from a long tradition of conquest and colonization started in the 15th century, including the time when Christopher Columbus arrived in North America. It's based on an idea now called the Doctrine of Discovery.

NANCY PINEDA-MADRID: It's not one written document. There are a series of documents, papal bulls, in which the pope gave rights to claim these lands to Portugal and to Spain.

DEROSE: Nancy Pineda-Madrid is a professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

PINEDA-MADRID: The mindset was to take the land from people who were not Christians or to assume the land in the name of Christianity. So there's a superiority for Christianity and Christian rulers that have rights that are not recognized in terms of others living in these lands - obviously, the Indigenous peoples that were there long before Christianity arrived.

DEROSE: It's a worldview that led to the murder or enslavement of millions during the age of exploration and continued into more recent times. For instance, boarding schools used to break up families and stamp out native culture.

MARY CRIST: Welcome to Saint Michael's Episcopal ministry center in Riverside, Calif.

DEROSE: Mary Crist is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and an enrolled member of the Blackfeet of Montana.

CRIST: I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord. Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor. Most merciful God...

DEROSE: In addition to her parish duties, Christ works nationally for the Episcopal Church to help the denomination go beyond acknowledgement through education of both clergy and laity.

CRIST: I think that anyone who calls themselves Christian needs to ask why they wouldn't want to repudiate that doctrine because that doctrine was explicit in saying non-Christians are non-humans and without rights.

DEROSE: Crist says her very presence as a Native American and a priest is testament to how far the church has come. She also says the church has important lessons still to learn.

CRIST: We didn't just all die off. Some of us are still here, incredibly resilient people whose literal connection to God comes through the land. So when the land is taken away or destroyed, we don't have a connection with the creator that we need to survive.

DEROSE: Crist believes these lessons are for all people. Starting in the late aughts, more than two dozen Protestant denominations in the U.S. and Canada, as well as the World Council of Churches, have voted to officially repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. And Loyola Marymount University theology professor Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu says many Catholics around the world rejoiced earlier this year when Pope Francis renounced the doctrine.

CECILIA GONZALEZ-ANDRIEU: For him, there is this joint extraordinarily urgent concern, which I think just comes to a head with the Indigenous. And that is the concern for the environment and the concern for the poor, what he calls the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.

DEROSE: Gonzalez-Andrieu knows dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery will take many years, but she finds hope in a passage from the Gospel of John.

GONZALEZ-ANDRIEU: Where Jesus says, I came so they would have life and have it more abundantly. That's it. That's the entire job of any Christian. And that means the environment. That means every single human being and their full dignity. It means all of the creatures. That is abundant life.


TIM NAFZIGER: So this is in the worship resources for gathering section of the hymnal.

DEROSE: Pasadena Mennonite Church member Tim Nafziger leafs through his denomination's recently published hymnal. It includes a template for land acknowledgements that each congregation can adapt with the names of local native groups.

NAFZIGER: Because the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery has been active in the Mennonite community, that was clearly part of what was taken into account.

DEROSE: One concrete way Nafziger's congregation is dismantling Christianity's history of colonization is by working with a group of Apache fighting the development of a copper mine on sacred land in Oak Flats, Ariz. When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case in Pasadena earlier this year, church members gave tribal members beds to sleep in and meals to eat.

NAFZIGER: And so that was a real opportunity for Pasadena Mennonite Church to support Apache stronghold, be involved in hospitality but also an opportunity for congregational members to come on the day when the case was heard and stand in the rain together and pray.

DEROSE: Pray for a relationship, Nafziger says, that's teaching him humility, solidarity and responsibility for ending the Doctrine of Discovery that's led to centuries of harm. Jason DeRose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.